MP John Healey's memories of job in a mental health institution stayed with him

AN eye-opening six months inside a bleak mental health institution had a profound effect on a young John Healey.

Forty-three years ago, the Wentworth and Dearne MP worked as a nursing assistant at a hospital where some patients had effectively been locked away simply because they were different.

Now, nobody needs to remind him that it is Mental Health Awareness Week, or of the value of drawing the wider public’s attention to the issues connected to psychological and emotional well-being.

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His experiences at Fulbourn psychiatric hospital, in Cambridge, after leaving university, have stayed with him.

TALKING HELPS: John with Dearne Valley veteransTALKING HELPS: John with Dearne Valley veterans
TALKING HELPS: John with Dearne Valley veterans

And not in a good way.

His time there is not something he talks about a lot; you won’t find any reference on his Wikipedia page, either.

But he has discussed his work there with the Advertiser as part of his support for this week’s campaign.

He said that while he’d had several portfolios as a frontbencher over the years, championing mental health was something he “could never put down”.

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“One of my first ever jobs was as a nursing assistant at Fulbourn psychiatric hospital, in the days when we had these massive mental hospitals,” he recalled.

“A lot of people called them loony bins.

“There were a lot of people in there who had been admitted for just not fitting in.

“And once they were in there, there was a heavy chemical regime, they were in there 20-30-40 years, chemically coshed, institutionalised.

“I very rarely talk about it. My job as an assistant, the lowest of the low, was to work with these long-term patients to help them learn skills before being allowed into the community.

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“This was 1980s (Margaret Thatcher’s reign) and the hospitals did need closing but of course there wasn’t any care or support waiting for them in the community.

“The idea that these people, damaged either before they went in or for having been in there for decades, would survive is shocking."

The dark days of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest style incarceration ended, but problems carried through into the community.

After his spell at the unit, he began a lifelong campaign for better care for people with mental health issues.

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He still does to this day - particularly on behalf of children in his Rotherham patch.

Back in 2018 Mr Healey and his team researched conditions in schools and the data “revealed a picture of increasing pressure and deteriorating mental health”.

Statistics around that time showed that one in nine, five to 16-year-olds, had been diagnosed with mental health problems. In 2023 it was one in six.

"It blights the life of so many people and it is getting worse,” he said adding that 120,000 youngsters, nationally, were waiting for treatment after being referred for treatment.

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If their problems are not rectified, they will continue and worsen into adulthood.

He said that if Labour wins the general election, the party was committed to funding a mental health counsellor in every school in the country.

"You can’t learn if you are not well,” he concluded.

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